If the Loure Valley conjures up an image of gentle rivers and exquisite
châteaux, it is Touraine, the historic region around the cathedral city of
Tours, that best matches the ideal. Touraine isn’t any richer in history than
neighbouring regions, or more densely populated with fine churches and
châteaux, but it is somehow closer to the idea of la France profonde – the great
French cultural myth of “deepest France”. It certainly receives the most
tourists of any Loire region.
The writer Rabelais called Touraine the “garden of France”, and the name
still aptly describes its air of well-tended prosperity: the shallow, well-watered
valleys are soft and fertile, the orchards and vineyards fruitful, and every back
road takes you past carefully maintained gardens and vegetable plots. It’s the
perfect backdrop for the scores of pale stone châteaux that dot the landscape.
Between the soft rivers, the plateaux are surprisingly bleak, empty of anything
but farms, modest villages, vineyards and the occasional patch of ancient forest.
Although no larger than other cities in the Loire region, Tours stands preeminent
by virtue of its history and cultural status. It was a key centre of early
Christianity in France, and the favoured city of the French monarchy in the
Renaissance. The Valois kings have long since departed, but Tours remains a
place of government as the administrative capital of the département of the Indreet-
Loire – the modern bureaucratic name for Touraine. If you don’t have your
own transport, the city is the obvious Loure Valley base, with both bus and train
connections to many of the region’s most notable châteaux.
From Tours, you can follow the course of the Loire east past the vineyards of
Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire, which together produce some of the
region’s finest white and sparkling wines, and on to Amboise, whose fine
Renaissance château stands high on natural battlements overlooking the river.
A short distance south, the graceful, much-visited château de Chenonceau
bridges the lovely Cher river, creating one of the quintessential images of idyllic
West of Tours, the north bank of the Loire sees relatively few visitors, though
you can visit the grand châteaux of Luynes and Champchevrier and the
dramatic, superbly furnished château at Langeais on the way to the winegrowing
town of Bourgueil. To the south, the sleepy River Indre runs in a
great arc through the heart of Touraine, lined with ruined abbeys, watermills
and châteaux – none of them more beautiful than the Renaissance pearl of
Azay-le-Rideau, mirrored in the streams that flow past its walls. Nearby lie the
fairy-tale château of Ussé and Balzac’s summer writing home at Saché. Just
short of the nearby confluence of the Loire and Cher, Renaissance gardens have
been spectacularly re-created at the château Villandry.
The southwestern corner of Touraine is watered by the broad river Vienne,
whose confluence with the Loire marks the border with the Saumurois. The
chief town is Chinon, whose ruined castle was built by Henry Plantagenet
on a cave-riddled escarpment overlooking the river. You can follow the
Vienne upstream past Tavant, with its bright Romanesque mural paintings,
and L’Ile Bouchard’s ruined abbey, then up onto the plateau surrounding Ste-Maure-de-Touraine, which produces some of the region’s most
renowned goat’s cheese. Alternatively, head south up the River Veude to the
stunning chapel at Champigny-sur-Veude and the weird seventeenthcentury
planned town of Richelieu.
The main draw in southern Touraine is Loches, a quiet provincial town at the
foot of a stunning medieval citadel. If you travel beyond Loches, you’ll really
leave other tourists behind. To the east you can explore up the little river
Indrois, stopping off at the half-ruined abbeys hidden in the ancient Forêt de
Loches on the way to the château and abbey church at Montrésor – a
contender for the title of prettiest little town in the region. North of the Indrois,
within striking distance of the river Cher, the isolated forest château of
Montpoupon houses a fascinating museum of hunting. The wet and wooded
countryside north of the Loire, known as the Gâtine Tourangelle, is more
popular with wild boar than tourists.Information on Tours and the surrounding
region can be found online at wwww.tourism-touraine.com. For details of
bus times, contact Filvert (t02.47.47.17.18, wwww.touraine-filvert.com), the
operating company for the whole of Touraine.